James and his Miami teammates will hope to bounce back from a drubbing at the hands of Thibodeau and top-seeded Chicago when the Eastern Conference finals resume at the United Center on Wednesday.
"We took it on the chin," sighed Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
Miami had a one-point lead with 7 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter, but the Bulls ended the game on a 46-24 run, showing up as the better team on both sides of the court and firing the opening salvo in this anticipated series.
"We got a little bit of a cushion," said Thibodeau, the NBA’s Coach of the Year. "Then our defense picked up."
Chris Bosh scored 30 to lead the second-seeded Heat, but Chicago held Dwyane Wade to 18 points and James to just 15. The Big Three’s 63 points were matched by Rose, Deng and Carlos Boozer, who scored 14 for the Bulls.
Although only three Bulls scored in double figures, they got help from all over. Especially from second-year big man Taj Gibson. The reserve forward provided a spark at both ends, dunking on Wade in the first half and blocking James on a drive in the second. Though he scored just nine points, Gibson also provided the game with its signature moment.
Leaping for a rebound in front, his right arm stretched back 45 degrees, Gibson threw down a thunderous one-handed dunk for the last of Chicago’s 103 points.
"There’s wins and losses in the playoffs, and nothing else," said Spoelstra.
It started on defense for Chicago. The Bulls held Miami to just 13 field goals in the second half, and they did it cleanly. The Heat, with slashing scorers like Wade and James, didn’t even get to the foul line in the third quarter.
"We have to get better," said Spoelstra, "and we’ll make those adjustments."
While they took care of business on the defensive end, the Bulls used a 10-0 run in the third quarter to take control of a red-hot Miami team fresh off a five-game victory over battle-tested Boston in the semis.
Armed with a 19-point lead late in the game, Thibodeau took Rose, the reigning league MVP, out of the game with 2:14 left. After sweeping the Heat in a three-game series during the regular season, the Bulls pushed their advantage to 4-0.
"We just believe in each other," said Deng. "I think that’s what’s making us a great team this year."
To rebound tonight, Miami will have to find a way to score in transition and that means doing a better job on the backboards. The Heat were outrebounded by a gaudy 45-33 margin in Game 1.
"We’ve been able to bounce back this year no matter if it’s been the regular season or the postseason," said James on Tuesday. "Learn from mistakes in the previous game and then move on. We’ve done that. We’re looking forward to the challenge, we’re excited about tomorrow’s opportunity to be here and try to steal homecourt."
James will also need to find a better way to deal with Thibodeau’s vaunted defensive schemes that rely on Deng’s perimeter skills along with weakside help coming from a host of lengthy players like Joakim Noah and Gibson.
"You got be patient," James said. "It’s harder to attack on the front side of their defense because they load on the strong side. You’ve got to be able to get the ball from one side to another and then attack their defense. They got a lot of length and athleticism."
That’s easier said than done since Chicago outrebounded opponents by an NBA- best 5.74 per game this season and are the top defense team left standing. Still, Thibodeau doesn’t want his club resting on its press clippings.
"Miami’s been a good ball-movement team all year," Thibodeau said. "They have players that when the ball comes back to them, they can go one-on-one. That’s what makes them so dangerous and tough to guard."
The Bulls swept a three-game season series with Miami this season, taking two in the Windy City and another in South Beach. All three contests were won by razor-thin margins, however, with Chicago winning by three, four and one, magnifying the Heat’s biggest weakness in the regular season, the inability to close out tight games.
The clubs have met in the postseason five previous times with Chicago taking four of those sets. The Bulls swept Miami in the first round in the 1992, ’96 and 2007 playoffs. Chicago also took the Heat in five games in the ’97 East finals while Miami earned a six-game triumph over the Bulls in the first round of the ’06 postseason. Overall, Chicago is now 17-5 against the Heat in the postseason.
Game 3 in the series will be Sunday in Miami.